Prize for replacing animal use in sight-saving research

Research that explores the use of stem cells to treat sight-threatening conditions such as glaucoma, while also replacing the use of animals, has today (28 January 2009) been awarded the NC3Rs Prize for 2008.

Dr Keith Martin, Centre for Brain Repair, University of Cambridge, was presented with the GlaxoSmithKline-sponsored £10k prize by Phil Willis MP, Chair of the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, at an award ceremony in London.

Dr Martin, and his colleague Mr Thomas Johnson, are investigating the potential of stem cells to protect vulnerable nerve cells in the injured retina. Their aim is to develop new treatments for glaucoma, the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide, and other eye diseases. Until now, injecting cells into the eyes of anaesthetised animals has been the only way to understand the barriers that prevent the integration of transplanted stem cells into the retina. Dr Martin and Mr Johnson have pioneered a new method for retinal tissue culture that replaces the need for experiments on live animals.

Dr Martin explains: "Using live animals, though still essential for some of our work, is time-consuming, potentially stressful to the animals, and requires large numbers to achieve reliable results. We have developed a new technique which allows us to keep tissue from a rat's eye alive for 17 days. This allows us to transplant stem cells onto living tissue in a controlled environment and test treatments to improve integration of the transplanted cells.

"We have shown that the cultured eye tissue remains healthy, maintains its layered architecture, and retains the ability to make new proteins. The tissue also responds to stem cell transplantation in a similar way to the eyes of living animals."

As well as replacing the use of live animals, the new method has brought about an eight-fold reduction in the number of animals used, because eight sections of tissue can be obtained from one rat.

Mr Willis said: "Dr Keith Martin and his colleague Thomas Johnson are not only outstanding winners of the NC3Rs prize for reducing the use of animals in science, but their efforts have resulted in a significant breakthrough in the search for treatments of glaucoma and other eye diseases. The work of these outstanding scientists demonstrates graphically the value of engaging with the NC3Rs and that science can be enhanced, not hindered, by considering animal welfare issues."

Dr Vicky Robinson, chief executive of the NC3Rs, said: "Using this technique, future research will be able to improve the efficacy of stem cell therapy while utilising far fewer animals. This is exactly the type of outcome which the NC3Rs is committed to delivering across the life sciences and a great example of what can be achieved by applying the 3Rs."

Because of the high quality of entries for the 3Rs Prize, the selection panel also awarded two Highly Commended prizes which were presented by Dr Jackie Hunter, Senior Vice-President of Science Environment Development, GlaxoSmithKline. The recipients were Mr Charalambos Tymvios, Imperial College London, for a publication on NC3Rs-funded research on refining a mouse model of pulmonary embolism, and Dr Jenny Morton, University of Cambridge, for a publication describing a refinement of the tests to measure cognitive deficits in mice used for neurodegenerative disease research.

Dr Jackie Hunter said: "GlaxoSmithKline is delighted to continue to sponsor this important award for the 4th year running. The quality of the submissions this year shows that the researchers - like the scientists I work alongside everyday at GSK - understand that any use of animals has an ethical dimension, and that truly innovative approaches can lead to improvements both in animal welfare and breakthrough developments in science."


Winning paper:

  • Johnson TV & Martin KR (2008) Development and characterization of an adult retinal explant organotypic tissue culture system as an in vitro intraocular stem cell transplantation model. Invest Ophthal Vis Sci 49(8):3503-12.

Highly commended papers are:

  • Tymvios C, Jone S, Moore C, Pitchford SC, Page CP & Emerson M (2008) Real-time measurement of non-lethal platelet thromboembolic responses in the anaesthetized mouse. Thrombosis and Haemostasis 99(2), 435-440
  • Morton AJ, Skilings E, Bussey T, & Saksida LM (2006) Measuring cognitive deficits in disabled mice using an automated interactive touchscreen system. Nature Methods 3 (10): 767

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